Censorship: Cannes, Turkey, Locarno


At the 34th Istanbul Film Festival, Turkey's premiere international film event, all the competitions the were cancelled over a censorship row. The Ankara Film Festival, which started on April 23, was following suit. And five days ago, on April 16, more than 200 filmmakers and industry professionals have signed a petition for the Locarno Film Festival to drop its focus on Israel, as it is being organized with money from the state-backed Israeli Film Fund - "following the election of the most racist, far-right government in Israel's history," as part of the petition reads.

Of course, all such issues in the film world recall the greatest and most famous such action ever, when on May 17, 1968, at the 21st Cannes Film Festival, after the screening of Peter Lennon's documentary Rocky Road to Dublin, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Lelouche climbed on the stage and announced that, in solidarity with the protests of French workers and the students, the festival was to be cancelled. Most of the film-makers pulled their films, and the next day the festival was officially over.

This was 1968, and the whole world was in turmoil- the "Czech Spring" started, the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, which by all accounts explained the Americans that the Vietnam war was imperialistic in its nature, and that they have lost it, and started riots at Berkeley, Chicago and Columbia universities. But the whole protest wave in France actually kicked off when André Malraux, De Gaulle's Minister of Culture, fired Henri Langlois from his post as head of the Cinémathèque Française on February 9th. A demonstration led by figures such as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Catherine Deneuve attracted Paris intellectuals and students, and the riot police was far from gentle - many demonstrators were injured, including Bernard Tavernier, Truffaut and Godard. (source:

Today the world is also in turmoil - and maybe it always is, but there are years and periods when "historic events" seem to accumulate and concentrate - but it is a different world. However, how much does a protest mean today? We protest so much online, signing this and that petition, releasing statements and manifestos... and do we really achieve any effect?

So let's see what the boycott of Istanbul Film Festival has achieved. What really happened? On April 12, the premiere of Turkish documentary film North (Bakur) was cancelled just hours before the screening as the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), the organiser of the festival, announced that it had received an official letter from the Cinema General Directorate of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism stating that films produced in Turkey must have a formal registration certificate in order to be screened at festivals.

Fearing legal action, the festival decided to pull the film. But what is the big deal and what is this certificate?

It took this writer a while to make sense of it, but once I looked at the synopsis of the film, everything was clear: North is a documentary set in three camps of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). So this rule, which has not been enforced regularly - most Turkish documentaries, and in general films that do not expect a theatrical distribution, do not apply for the certificate - has been pushed for this one particular film. Turkish festivals, including Istanbul, have been showing many films that do not have the registration. And this rule has been in power since 1988 and applied to all films, including international ones, until 2004 when it was amended to exclude foreign productions.

The festival decided to comply, and the Turkish film-makers with films at the festival reacted by pulling their films back and refusing to screen them. Quickly, the international competition was also cancelled in solidarity, but the screenings remained. Jafar Panahi, who is under house arrest and still managed to make a film which won the Golden Bear (Taxi), sent a message of support to Turkish film community, but wanted his film to be screened. It would certainly be ironic if Panahi did otherwise.

In the next few days, some Turkish film-makers changed their minds and five films from the New Turkish Cinema held their screenings, and so did one documentary in the national competition. Meanwhile, more than 300 Turkish film-makers and 30 production companies, independent cinemas, and trade associations issued an open letter, calling for end of censorship, and formation of a national film centre - Turkey does not have a film institute or fund separate from the Ministry of Culture.

So while the majority of the Turkish film industry said what they wanted with the boycott, we asked those who decided to screen their films about their side of the story.

"Yes, the government wants North to be censored, and everybody knows this," says Baris Ercetin, director of Lawless, who decided to have his film screened in the New Turkish Cinema section despite the boycott.

"But the government did not say it out loud, their action was not officially directed at that particular film. So in this way, they got what they wanted, without having to straight-out censor the one film."

"If instead we took a positive action, and the film was screened despite the government's warning, then they would have to say out loud: 'Remove this film!' This would be clear censorship and our voice against it would be much louder and direct."

As for his film Lawless, which is a crime/action movie based on a real story that happened in 2010, Ercetin says: "The Turkish society in general doesn't want to see its own ugly truth, its 'real face'.

Turkish people loves to watch itself in a comedy or in fairy tale-like stories. When you try to make them to see their real self, then you have serious problems. So I can say that our society has its own auto-censorship in its genes."

Another point of view comes from Ertan Velimatti Alagoz, director of The Fish in Me, an arthouse film which was selected for the same section, and a big part of which has to do with Darwin's theory of evolution- which is forbidden to teach in Turkish schools. But they applied for the certificate and got it without any problems.

"We don't think pulling your film is the best way to show your attitude or anger at censorship," says Alagoz. "And we, with a film like ours, which is low budget and arthouse, do not have the luxury to say no to festivals like Istanbul, Adana or Antalya. We do not have other options of reaching theatrical audiences."

The film's producer Banu Alagoz, adds: "We need time to understand if this is a real censorship. Nobody knows exactly what happened between the Ministry of Culture and the festival. The second issue is that this document that the Ministry requires - registration of the film - should never be used for censorship, but it also regulates some other important matters: it protects the ownership rights and rights of the cast and crew. It includes permissions of all of them to use their work - script, music, acting, set design and make-up, all the departments - so this is another side of the issue. We did not want to decide about what is 'good' or 'bad', we wanted to show our film and see how things develop."

And things are developing. The Ankara Film Festival, held a few days after IFF, also cancelled all the competitions. So, there is one more place less for non-commercial Turkish (and international) films to be seen by the audiences.

This, of course, is not to say that the protest is meaningless: the incident has attracted international attention to the festival and Turkey's regulations, and the film that was the problem, has received an unexpected spotlight that it otherwise could never hope for. In addition, the company that produced the film, Surela Film, took part in the festival's industry section Meetings on the Bridge with a new project, called Songs of Fraternity, and directed by the same director, Cayan Demirel, and received an award of 10,000 euro from the Turkish-German Co-Production Development Fund. We haven't yet heard if they declined the award.

If there is a conclusion to be made, maybe the words of Istanbul Film Festival's director Azize Tan can point us in the right direction. In an interview for Indiewire, Tan said: " What would have happened if we had taken another decision? Nobody can know that, because what happened is now permanent. Maybe we have to look at it in other way: our actions weren't in isolation. The actions of other parties, like the juries, were also involved. There were incidents that had already occurred before the festival.

We have to see everything as part of the zeitgeist, as a sign of the times we are living in. You cannot remove yourself; you cannot see the festival without noting its place in society. The festival does not exist in a bubble. It doesn't exist in a separate reality; it's part of it."

And in today's reality, film-makers are not driving the world changes. The power they had in 1968 has dissipated, dissolved in the world of internet and TV reality shows. Bloggers and kim kardashians today hold more sway and influence than von triers, hanekes and loaches. It is sad, but it is a fact. And multinational companies and governements of powerful countries do not care - Turkish government will not yield to this "pressure", actually, as Ercetin rightly noted, they got exactly what they wanted.

Has Citizenfour really changed anything? Its winning the documentary Oscar has mainstreamed the whole issue in the wrong way, paradoxically giving the US administration more leeway, as it is now seen more as entertainment than a powerful document of abuse of human rights, and Edward Snowden is still in exile in Russia. Even ten years ago, when the magnificent documentary We Feed the World exposed all the evils of multinationals like Nestle, there was really little reaction. And the company's head was again heard this year saying that "access to water is not a basic human right." He is still the head of the company, and we are still buying their bottled water.

Vladan Petković


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